Change Choices, Not Conversation


Aug 24, 2008

By Melissa Flournoy

This commentary originally appeared in Monroe (LA) News Star on August 24, 2008.

It's time to change the conversation about the problems that face the Gulf South region.

Too often we talk only about the ongoing challenges facing education, health care, transportation and economic development across the Gulf South — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Each state has reason to believe its cup is half full when the focus is on innovation in early childhood education, new ideas about work-force training and renewed interest in economic development.

One of our region's biggest challenges is competition with each other. We need to determine new ways to work together across state lines to focus on solutions that will benefit the entire region. Over the last few months, the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, part of the nonprofit research organization the RAND Corp., has been reaching out to work with policymakers, local universities, businesses, advocacy groups, community leaders and nonprofits to identify the key challenges facing Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

But talking about change isn't enough. The goal of RAND Gulf States is to provide objective, independent research and analysis to help officials and community leaders make better decisions — and then implement those decisions.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, RAND Gulf States dedicated substantial resources, including opening two local offices, to help regional leaders solve some of the vexing issues confronting region. RAND Gulf States is now considering how to work on the systemic long-term issues facing our region in education, health, economic development, criminal justice, housing and the environment. We have to move from just focusing on recovery to working on reshaping the priorities for the future of our region.

RAND Gulf States is not interested in the same old rehash of what's broken and adding another study to the book shelf, but in working with organizations and leaders in the region to focus on problem-solving, best practices that improve outcomes for the public, and better data and analysis to support decision-makers in improving public policy.

For example, RAND Gulf States already has helped a local police department rethink its recruitment and retention practices in order to attract and keep qualified officers, addressed barriers to affordable housing and economic development, and provided data to assist policymakers in improving health care services. In each case, we demonstrated that when leaders and citizens work from the facts — the data about what's actually going on as opposed to what seems to be happening — they can break through a difficult problem and find a way forward.

This summer during meetings in each state, RAND Gulf States leadership sought to identify regional priorities. We listened and learned that there are many great things happening across our region, but not much communication across state and local boundaries. We need to learn from each other and we need to reach out for fresh ideas and innovative solutions to address pervasive and persistent problems.

For example, we learned that Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama share common concerns about how to improve educational attainment of students, reduce drop-out rates, improve the delivery of health care, address bottlenecks in transportation, diversify economic development, improve workforce training and increase the availability of affordable housing.

New strategies for program design and implementation at the state and regional levels can create new opportunities for economic development and real improvements across the board in education, health care, criminal justice and other important areas.

The timing could not be better for leaders to think differently about how the region views its prospects. If we continue to do the same things over and over again while expecting different results — paraphrasing Einstein's definition of insanity — our region will leave on the table many unfulfilled opportunities for growth and prosperity.

If the region's leadership looks to the future with the expectation of improving health for all residents, increasing student and school performance, and approaching work force education and training as a cornerstone of regional economic development, then we can put our minds to devising and implementing strategies that will produce results. Results-oriented policymaking means that leaders need to look at the evidence from elsewhere of what's worked and what hasn't. It means measuring progress along the way and making mid-course corrections to improve implementation, and it means making the long-term investments that will enable successful strategies to continue.

Whether it is addressing the devastating effects of too many families living in poverty, low educational attainment among our children, too few highly skilled workers to meet our economic development opportunities, or chronic health care challenges with too little attention paid to prevention and access to care, we really do have a lot in common across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

We hope the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute can be a resource across the region to support the leaders in each community who work so hard to make a difference.

Melissa Flournoy, a former Louisiana lawmaker, is director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, part of the nonprofit research organization the RAND Corporation.

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